There are lines I can fathom and lines I can’t.
People waiting for a table outside Bad Saint, the tiny Filipino charmer in Columbia Heights, or Shake Shack, the downtown burger phenom from New York, know the rewards for getting through the door include food that leaves them smiling and eager to return.
Other queues leave me scratching my head. Consider Ben’s Chili Bowl, the subject of a recent critique in these pages and best savored for its history, period.
One of my jobs as food critic is to lead diners to diamonds and steer them from dross, which brings me to today’s topic, an eight-year-old restaurant I ranted about in 2012 but feel obliged to reexamine with fresh eyes. Since I last looked at it seriously, or tried to, the brand has grown to include three offshoots in the region (with more on the way) and a cookbook celebrating a farm-to-table philosophy, aided and abetted by big jars of preserved fruits and vegetables on the restaurant’s shelves.
My cab driver recognizes my destination near the International Monetary Fund before I can finish its address: “Founding Farmers!” he says. Similar energy awaits me at the Foggy Bottom restaurant, where (for real!) huddled masses in the foyer act as if they’re about to board a flight to nirvana. This busy restaurant doesn’t need hosts so much as air traffic controllers.
Attempting to access Founding Farmers for dinner on short notice tends to net you the dreaded time slots of 5:30 or 9:30. My strategy has been to go for an early lunch as a solo diner and head for the bar, a trek I made four times in recent months before I scored an actual table in the dining room with a group — albeit at 6 p.m. on a Monday with almost two weeks’ notice.
Your waiter is likely to ask if you’ve been in before and, if you haven’t, to tick off reasons you should be pleased to make the acquaintance of the LEED gold-certified restaurant, where the tables are reclaimed wood and the menus use recycled paper. “We’re a fresh and seasonal restaurant,” a server says, “and we try to make as much as we can from scratch,” including breads and pastas.
There are several wrinkles in the script, one of which is that restaurant patrons more or less expect that any self-respecting kitchen these days is going to offer “fresh and seasonal.” Further, simply because something is said to be made on site doesn’t confer on the dish a blue ribbon. Witness a skillet of cornbread, bright with corn kernels but also doughy in the center, and pickled “seasonal” vegetables that turn out to be mostly sliced cucumbers. The snack is also unpleasantly mouth-puckering.
Forget the subtle barn motif, the online videos suggesting conscientious cooks are fussing over breakfast, lunch and dinner. Almost everything I’ve eaten here in recent months — chicken wings so small they should be called chick wings, gummy cheesy pasta with listless lobster — smacks of coming from something other than a kitchen with a chef in charge. (Kudos, however, for the homey mashed potatoes.) Whoever penned the epic menu, invariably sticky from fingers other than my own, apparently didn’t want to leave a soul behind. The portions are enormous, which only magnifies their flaws. Slices of soft, sepia-toned “Many Vegetable Mushroom Loaf” lead me to believe salt must be a vegetable. Like too many entrees here, the blimp of roast chicken, shot down by woody green beans (with even-woodier stems attached), shows up on the heels of an appetizer of bacon “lollis.” Essentially bacon strips threaded on skewers, they resemble a cross between jerky and liquefied cinnamon toast. The temptation to finish an order is zero.
Is the staff in on the joke? A bartender doesn’t blink when I tell her I’m done with a plank of prosciutto- and mascarpone-paved “farm” bread — seemingly a loaf of sliced ciabatta — after a few bites. With barely a glance, she chucks the lot, sullied with a cloying balsamic reduction, into the garbage. In the dining room a few weeks later, no one asks why so much food remains when staff come to collect our plates. Had my waiter inquired, my posse would have told him the swamp posing as shrimp and grits was about as close to the southern model as rap is to opera. Also: “Land and Sea” goes down like a forced marriage between beef steak that’s never cooked the shade you ask and a crab cake whose seafood is masked by salt and heat. The best part of the goat cheese burger has nothing to do with the unfortunate sandwich but with the squat brown paper bag alongside it. Inside are potato chips. They’re okay. Not okay: Chicken pot pie weighed down with an arid biscuit the size of a softball.
“I feel like I’m in a cafeteria,” a companion says on a recent weeknight on the second floor, where a flock of ceramic birds floats above our heads. (I would envy them their freedom, but they’re just as stuck here as we are.) The din and strangely stale air lend credence to the sentiment. Shouldn’t a restaurant as vast as this one smell like some cooking is going on? If the nose isn’t exactly assaulted, the ears certainly are. On any given night, the sound equivalents in the dining room fall between that of a garbage disposal and a passing diesel truck.
On my sixth visit, hoping to crack the restaurant’s appeal, I bought “The Founding Farmers Cookbook,” copies of which are locked in display cases and must be retrieved by a manager. (Plan to wait 10 minutes or more, and spend $40. Counter to what the restaurant delivers, the fetching food photography and homespun advice in the book practically had me humming “America the Beautiful.”) I couldn’t help but notice a plug on the back of the recipe collection from a former president of the North Dakota Farmers Union — the entity behind this sad state of affairs. Maybe Alice Waters was busy.
Frankly, I can think of only three reasons for the crowds: location, location, location. With the White House a few blocks away, the place is hard to miss.
On second thought, there is one other redeeming quality at this farm-to-fable establishment: the drinks. Your gin gimlet, in other words, comes with fresh lime juice, and if you opt for a Paloma, spiced the way you like it, the result is a breeze (of tequila and citrus) to finish.
Therein lies a key to survival: Never mind that it’s noon. Order a Sazerac. It will help you forget what you’re about to eat, or at least keep you much better company than the cooking.
Bryan’s profile has been borrowed from the Washington Post’s expose on Palmer: The Good, the Bad, and the Incredibly Pale: the Life of Bryan Palmer